"...smart and provocative and deeply felt..."

Smart, Provocative and Commercial

(092206) "Gone Girl" carries with it a genuine sense of pre-release excitement. After all, the combination of a highly anticipated property--in this case, Gillian Flynn's enormously popular and much-debated 2012 best-seller--and one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of our time--David Fincher, the man behind such groundbreaking movies as "Seven," "Fight Club," "Zodiac" and "The Social Network"--promised to be a pop-cultural event of mammoth proportions. In fact, the only possible hitch appeared to be that the film might not be able to the titanic levels of hype that it has generated ever since it went into production, the very same fate that to a certain degree befell Fincher's last film, his adaptation of the equally popular book "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Not only does "Gone Girl" more than live up to all of the advanced publicity and speculation as to how the material might fare in its journey from the page to the screen, it more than exceeds all expectations. Whether seen as a corrosive indictment of contemporary tabloid culture run amok or an equally incisive examination of a seemingly ideal marriage gone sour, this is a brilliantly crafted, endlessly twisty and darkly hilarious work that is among the very best films of the year and reconfirms Fincher's standing as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.

Set in a small Missouri town still reeling from the impact of the recession--an abandoned shopping mall bearing mute witness to countless consumer dreams turned into nightmares--"Gone Girl" begins on the fifth anniversary of the marriage Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his golden girl wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). After spending the morning hanging out at the bar that he co-owns with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), Nick returns home but Amy seems to have vanished and there is evidence of a struggle. Nick immediately calls the police and Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and her callow young partner (Patrick Fugit) arrive on the scene. A search begins immediately and since Amy is blonde, beautiful and slightly famous in her own right--her parents (David Clennon and Lisa Bange) utilized an idealized version of her childhood as grist for their series of "Amazing Amy" children's books--her disappearance generates immediate nationwide attention. Unfortunately for Nick, the seemingly effortless charm that he has used to pretty much skate through life so far does not play very well in this context and while Amy is practically launched into sainthood, nearly everything Nick says or does makes him seem like a douchebag at best and a potential murderer at worst.

While the present-day narrative is unfolding, the film also presents us, via Amy's diary, with flashbacks that reveal that the marriage of the Dunnes may not have been the storybook fantasy that it appeared to be on the surface. When they first met years earlier, both were magazine writers in New York City and were fast, sexy and glib--the post-millennial equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles. Then the recession kicked in, costing both of them their elevated careers and when Nick's mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, they moved back to his Missouri hometown to help care for her and make a fresh start for themselves. Alas, while Nick was able to slip back into this world, the more cosmopolitan Amy found it to be a more difficult fit. Eventually, there were the inevitable fights about money, Nick's lack of ambition and whether or not they should have a kid. Add in booze, mistrust and a lack of communication and an already grim circumstance quickly becomes toxic and leads to Amy's final diary entry in which she expresses her fears that Nick, who has already been violent towards her on one occasion, may very well want to kill her.

At this point, writing about "Gone Girl" becomes exceedingly difficult because even the most benign mention of the plot machinations could be construed as massive spoilers in certain circles. All I will say is that as the story begins veering off into unexpected directions, a number of new characters become involved in the narrative. There is Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a rich former boyfriend of Amy's who supposedly went around the bend when she dumped him and who recently moved back to St. Louis. There is Noelle (Casey Wilson), a neighbor [woman who claims to have been Amy's best friend and who has all sorts of interesting information to share. There is Andie (Emily Ratajkowski), a sexy young minx of the sort that almost inevitably turns up in a saga like this. There is Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), a news commentator who may remind viewers of a certain media personality who uses her broadcasting pulpit to alternately deify Amy and crucify Nick at every turn because it makes for great ratings. Finally, there is Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry. . . yes, that Tyler Perry), a high-priced and high-profile defense attorney who agrees to take on Nick's seemingly unwinnable case, as much for the challenge as for the enormous amount of free publicity to be generated by a case that has by now become a nationwide obsession.

As for Fincher, while some might have questioned the wisdom of his adapting another best-selling potboiler in the wake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," a film that failed to resonate with audiences to the same degree that the book did, he proves to be pretty much the perfect person to handle the material. The mystery-thriller aspects of the story are, of course, old hat to him and he handles that material with such purely cinematic flair that even though it is a work of fiction, the procedural stuff is as engrossing and captivating as anything to be found in his masterpiece "Zodiac" At the same time, Fincher has always proven himself to be up for a challenge and "Gone Girl" gives him the chance to make his first real film about male-female relationships and he handles that material brilliantly as well as he charts the course of their relationship with surgical-like precision that will have most viewers recognizing things from their own lives and no doubt inspire intensely passionate debates that will stretch out long into the night. From a technical standpoint, there is not a false step to be had--this is a master class in state-of-the-art filmmaking that holds audiences spellbound from the first frame to the last. Most of all, and this is something that is hardly suggested in the enigmatic commercials and trailers, it is very funny to boot, albeit in the bleakest and blackest manner possible, and the unexpected jolts of humor prove to be a most welcome surprise indeed.

One of the most important reasons for the success of "Gone Girl" is the brilliant casting across the boards from actors that have been chosen with pinpoint accuracy to play roles that to a large degree play upon how they are already perceived in the media. After years of being a tabloid fixture and having seen those lights turn against him from time to time, it could be argued that Ben Affleck was born to play Nick Dunne and that informs his performance to a degree that simply wouldn't have been there in the hands of another actor who has not yet learned that something as simple as a smile can make one a hero or a pariah in the eyes of the tabloid press and their readers. This is easily his best performance since "Chasing Amy" (no pun intended) and demonstrates just how good he can be as an actor when given the right material. As for Rosamund Pike, she is an actress who has been around for a few years but has never quite broken through to the front ranks despite her obvious talent and beauty--she is recognizable enough to moviegoers but not so much that they can easily get a fix on who she is. Of course, that is Amy in a nutshell and she uses that to her advantage and the result is a great performance that should supercharge her career at last. There is also a huge gallery of supporting actors who turn in wonderful performances as well but the one that surprised and impressed me the most--a reaction that I suspect will be shared by many people--was Tyler Perry's turn as Nick's attorney. Like many of you, I was bewildered to learn that Fincher cast him but whatever it was about Perry's work that caught Fincher's interest, that instinct, like the notion to cast Justin Timberlake in "The Social Network," was correct because he is incredibly good here as he delivers a funny, charismatic and nuanced turn that could not be further removed from Perry's work in his own films.

"Gone Girl" is one of the great American films of the year and proof that just because a film is an enormous commercial proposition doesn't mean that it cannot be smart and provocative and deeply felt as well. It may appear to be just another conventional pop thriller on the surface but it quickly plunges viewers into unexpected and unexpectedly bracing waters. When they finally surface again after 2 1/2 hours (which fly by in a shot, by the way), they will be shaken and stirred in ways that few contemporary movies even attempt to do to their audiences, let alone succeed at it to the degree that the film does here.

Directed by:    David Fincher
Written by:    Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name
Starring:    Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris
Released:    10/03/14 (USA)
Length:    149 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content/nudity, and language

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